School board incumbents returned in non-shock

“It was a grueling,” School District 622 Board Member Scott Duddeck quips of the 2005 school board campaign, after he, fellow member Mark Wheeler and Board Chair Cathy Miller were returned to their seats in an uncontested election Nov. 8.
The election was one of several in the metro area that were for the first time subject to a state law that called for much earlier filings, in order to provide for possible primary elections in September — the month in which districts traditionally open filings for the general election.
Seriously, Duddeck says, he was somewhat disappointed at the lack of interest in the race, adding he hopes the lack of challenge for seats on the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School Board reflects a satisfied electorate. “I hope that’s the case and it’s not ‘Well, we didn’t know about it.’”
However, with three incumbents returned for second and third terms, the board can seamlessly continue its work implementing the newly-drafted strategic plan and handling other challenges, he says. “It gives some continuity to the board, and I think that’s important so it’s not changing constantly. . . This gives a continuing good working relationship with all board members.”
Not that the board is in lock-step, he stresses. “Board members don’t agree on everything. The board has a wide range of different talents and knowledge. .  . and board members often agree to disagree, and that, I think, makes for a very healthy board.”
As he looks forward to his second four-year term, Duddeck says his first was a tough one, citing large budget cuts and the closure of Beaver Lake School. The coming year’s provision from the Legislature doesn’t look very rosy either, he warns. “Unfortunately, right now, I think the people in the community assumed the district was going to receive this additional money from the state, and that didn’t really come to pass. . . What was perceived in the media and the ending formulas and how they were arrived at created two different funding outcomes.”
 The most pressing challenge right now is negotiating with employee unions in order to settle biannual contracts, he says. Contract negotiations with teachers’ and other unions are ongoing, and must be agreed on by Jan. 15, or the state begins fining the district, he says.
Weighing employee needs with a tight budget is a difficult balancing act, Duddeck says. “There’s only so much money, and as much as you’d like to give your teachers and staff as much as possible, there’s only so much to go around.”
The good news, he says, is that after a community-wide process in developing a strategic plan, the district should be able to put pieces of the plan in place. “We’re starting to implement portions of the strategic plan that the community has worked on and put a lot of time and effort in. We want to try to start implementing as many portions of the strategic plan as possible.  . .There are so many things and people spent so much time and true effort in putting together the strategic plan. . .. Hopefully, a lot of those things can start soon.”

Eyeing student achievement
Board Chair Cathy Miller, starting her third four-year term, says, “I think we’ve had quite a few accomplishments, but if you look at the very recent past the hiring of our new superintendent is something we can be proud of.”
Miller says the process of choosing a superintendent is a particular point of pride, with sessions open to anyone who might want to meet and evaluate superintendent candidates and opportunities for people to submit written recommendations. “Anyone — any staff member or member of community — could participate. It was very inclusive. . . The strategic planning process we went through was also open, and anyone who wanted to be involved could be involved.”
Miller says her first challenge is the same as for the last eight years. “No. 1 is improving student achievement for all students ... making sure every student in our district, whether or not they’re struggling students or the average student or kids who need extra challenge, is provided programs to help them be successful and reach their full potential.
“Each and every student deserves to improve. That should always be our No. 1 focus.
“The next issue is balancing your budget, to keep class sizes manageable and reasonable, dealing with declining enrollment, providing programs and retaining staff,” she continues. “Trying to balance all that is really a challenge, and it’s all intertwined.”

Enrollment fallout
Board Member Mark Wheeler, starting on his second four-year term, recalls dealing with the consequences of levy failure soon after taking office, then seeing a successful levy passage in 2002. “We also had the building additions to Eagle Point, Richardson and Cowern, and one of my personal favorites, the formation of the Citizen Finance Committee. I think that (committee) was a major change for the district, and I hope people find it valuable.”
Wheeler cites Duddeck’s concern about funding from the state. “Following up on two years of nothing and then having essentially half of this first year’s increase going to energy costs because of spikes in natural gas and fuel costs and the like (is disheartening).”
Wheeler says the board is also examining how to handle declining enrollment, with incoming elementary classes much smaller than the ones that preceded them. “For the last two or three years that’s been very noticeable in the elementaries and is well underway in our middle schools, and in two or three years we’ll start seeing the impact in our high schools as well,” he says. The problem is covering  fixed costs such as operating buildings with fewer students bringing in state aid, he says.  
Even nonpublic schools in the district are seeing declines in enrollment of younger students, he says. “It seems to be because the cities in the district are mostly developed. Anytime you have a relatively new community, you have new families moving in and they have kids. Twenty years later, all those kids are gone. And except for some very small pockets of new development in 622, that’s all done. It’s a continued challenge to keep offering the programs students need and balance them with budgeting and enrollment.”
The trio will be sworn in at the board’s first meeting in January.

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